Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: Bad by Circumstance

We often hear about "victim mentality," which is blamed for keeping people in bad situations/relationships/circumstances. As a writer, I have used this kind of thinking in characters. In my current work in progress, the wife of the murder victim has been abused for years. Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, it wasn't uncommon to see women like her. I have known several women who remained in abusive relationships because they either accepted the abuse as being their fault or because they couldn't see a way out. I have even known a few who reached the breaking point and struck back against the abuser. Under ordinary circumstances, these people would not kill: they truly believed they had to do something.

I am sure anyone reading this blog could give me examples of good people who turned to violence because they saw no other way out. My favorite fictional account is in Susan Glaspell's classic mystery story "A Jury of Her Peers." I love the way that all through the story the menfolk are stumbling over clues the women piece together while talking about quilts, preserves, and other womanly occupations. The solution to what happened and the decision of the women not to reveal the circumstances that led to murder shocked readers at the time.

Perhaps Glaspell's conclusion was so shocking to Victorian sensibilities because the story is loosely based on the real life murder of John Hossack. The sad saga played out in court, where interestingly enough the prosecution raised the issue of abuse in the home as motive rather than a mitigating factor in the crime. We may never know if Hossack's wife actually killed him. Sentiment at the time was that if she didn't commit the murder she knew who did. She was convicted of first degree murder, a year later the Iowa Supreme Court overturned her conviction, a second trial led to a hung jury.

Does the "bad by circumstance" story still work today?

I believe it does. A few years ago I used this type of plot from a male perspective. I had a construction worker lose his job because a busybody accused him of indecent exposure. His wife died because he could not afford her medical care without insurance. He murdered the woman who cost him his wife. These circumstances won't be repeated. I ended the story when his boss figured it out, but decided not to tell the police.

1 comment:

Gail Baugniet said...

Gwen, you've written a thought-provoking article. Many readers can relate to an incident of "Bad by Circumstance" involving a character such as a teen from the wrong side of the tracks or a divorced man/woman spending nights in a local bar.

Like you, I believe the plot line still works today, as long as it is given an unexpected devilish twist.